Wednesday, January 02, 2008

That's So ... Canadian!

Last month, I flew up to Toronto for a few days, to attend and attest to the marriage of my good friend Howard. Aside from the heaviest one-day snowfall since World War II (the same storm that slammed New England and the Maritimes), it was an interesting peek into life north of the border. It had been ten years since my last visit to the Great White North — and that was in August, when it only barely went below freezing. Howard grew up in Los Angeles, and has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area his entire adult life, but he despairs for the future of the United States, especially with George W. Bush resolutely marching us in the wrong direction on issue after issue. For him, moving to Canada is a breath of fresh air in many ways. First and foremost, he can legally get married and have that union fully recognized by all levels of the government, but that's not all. As Howard said about one marvel after another, "That's so ... Canadian!"

Coming right on the heels of a snowfall that was heavy by Canadian standards (BRRRR!), the wedding was lightly attended. Almost as many Yanks as Canucks showed up — the Americans had flown or driven up before the storm hit, whereas the locals were stranded until the snow plows came. The actual ceremony was performed by a "certified marriage practitioner," a recent Canadian innovation for people who don't want a church service but find courtrooms unromantic. A couple of days before the big day, we went shopping for a few last-minute items, and every person we told that Howard and Don were getting married, gave us heartfelt congratulations; not one expressed any consternation at the thought of two men marrying. Of course, when your primary concern is "How am I going to shift this mound of snow off my driveway so I can get to work?" it doesn't leave much time for worrying who your neighbor is sleeping with.

We even went into a Wal-Mart, the pinnacle of American retail culture, but even a Canadian Wal-Mart felt somehow different. Maybe it was the patient single-file queue for the express checkout lanes. In America, we demand a separate line for each lane, never mind that it can be proven mathematically that a single line is more efficient. Maybe we get lucky and get a line that moves quickly, or maybe we get stuck behind "Price check, Aisle 666" — but then we get to bitch about it. But beyond that, patience isn't something I see in abundance in places like Wal-Mart, less than two weeks before Christmas.

The pervasive sense of anxiety that has seeped into every facet of post-9/11 American life is shockingly absent in Canada, even though Canada has troops in Afghanistan and has even faced some terror threats at home. As Howard puts it, "Nobody hates Canada." That's not quite literally true, but the United States has the sad distinction of being quite possibly the most hated nation in the history of the world, because the people who are pissed at us number in the billions. Another key point: every time a single Canadian soldier is killed in Afghanistan, the entire country pauses to mourn the loss. Here in the United States, we feel eerily detached from the deaths of our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. We never see the coffins coming home. When Nightline devoted an episode to a simple list of the soldiers who have been killed, it was vilified by the neocons as being part of a defeatist conspiracy.

The other day, my TiVo recorded an episode of Degrassi: Next Generation, a Canadian soap opera drama set in a high school in Toronto. Degrassi is a very different place from my high school, and the kids are pretty different, too. There's an earnestness about them, a burning drive to change the world for the better, that kind of makes you think some of them might just grow up to be political bloggers. That's the characters in the script, at any rate, but what of the actors themselves? Well, on Christmas Day, the episode I caught was a travelogue of several of the actors on a trip to a remote village in Kenya, where they built a real school, not just a set on a soundstage. They spent about a week living in the village, hauling water back a couple of kilometers from the muddy river, moving rocks, pouring concrete, putting a roof on the building, and in general giving tangible expression to their concern for humanity. It was all very ... Canadian.

I love my country, and I'm not ready yet to give up the fight to take it back from the neocon cabal that has been in power the last 7 years, but I can't help thinking that I wish the United States of America could be just a little bit more Canadian — minus the record snowfall, of course.

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